Caitlan Coleman tells of forced abortion, disputes official account of her rescue in Pakistan
“We were not crossing into Pakistan that day,” Coleman said on the grounds of an Ottawa hospital on Monday, and claims made by Islamabad and Washington that they were rescued Oct. 11 after crossing the border are false.
|Report an Error|
Share via Email
OTTAWA—Caitlan Coleman, the 31-year-old American woman who gave birth to her three children while held hostage by the Haqqani network, says she is breaking her silence to dispute statements made about her family’s captivity and the day they were rescued.
“Right now everybody’s shunting blame and making claims. Pakistan says, no they were never in Pakistan, until the end. The U.S. says, no they were always in Pakistan; it was Pakistan’s responsibility. But neither of those are true,” she told the Star.
During her first interview Monday since being rescued 12 days ago, Coleman added crucial details about the kidnapping case that has captured international attention and led to widespread speculation.
While she said she is not ready to speak publicly about all aspects of her captivity, she is certain they were held in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and claims made by Islamabad and Washington, that they were rescued Oct. 11 after crossing the border are false. “We were not crossing into Pakistan that day. We had been in Pakistan for more than a year at that point.”
Coleman was kidnapped with her husband, Joshua Boyle, a Canadian, in October 2012 in Afghanistan. They were held for five years by the Taliban-linked Haqqani network before their dramatic rescue by Pakistani forces. She was pregnant when she was taken captive.
Until reaching out to the Star, Coleman has shunned publicity, with the exception of Saturday night emails to her hometown paper about her memories of growing up in Pennsylvania. “Good friends and great times are not forgotten, even now,” she wrote to the York Daily Record.
Her 34-year-old husband, however, began speaking just hours after landing in Toronto, telling journalists at the airport that his wife had been raped and one of his daughters murdered.
His statement confirmed what the couple had darkly alluded to in letters and “proof-of-life” videos the captors released. Coleman said she had been “defiled” in front of her children and Boyle wrote vaguely of a terminated pregnancy.
Coleman said Monday that the forced abortion was in retaliation for Boyle’s refusal of Haqqani network efforts to recruit him. “They were very angry because Joshua had been asked to join them, to work for them, and he said no,” she said. “They killed her by dosing the food. They put massive doses of estrogen in the food.”
High levels of estrogen in a pregnancy can force a miscarriage and Coleman says once she lost her baby, whom the couple named “Martyr,” the kidnappers boasted about what they had done.
The Taliban last week issued a statement refuting the claim, saying she miscarried naturally.
Coleman said they kept her other two pregnancies secret, and Boyle delivered both her youngest son and daughter by flashlight as she quietly laboured in pain.
Coleman spoke to the Star Monday alone on the grounds of Ottawa’s Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, as her husband cared for their sons, who are 4 and 2.
All three of her children, including her months-old daughter, who slept in her lap for part of the interview, have been undergoing tests at the hospital and still adapting to a life free from captivity, which includes trips to a playground on the property. Coleman was also receiving medical attention but said she had been recovering.
She said she’s aware of criticism on social media and elsewhere calling both her and Boyle reckless for travelling in Afghanistan while she was pregnant and then getting pregnant three more times while captive.
“It was a decision we made. We did think about it and talk about it and it’s difficult to explain all the reasons, but, for me, a large part was the fact that it has always been important to me to have a large family,” she said. “This took our life away from us — this captivity with no end in sight. And so I felt that it was our best choice at that time. We didn’t know if we would have that opportunity when we came back. We didn’t know how long it would be. It was already unprecedented, so we couldn’t say, ‘Oh we’ll only be here a year or six months.’ ”
During the interview, she at times laughed at the ridiculousness of a memory — at other times she grew quiet or simply said, “No comment.” She has continued to wear a hijab since returning to Canada but declined Monday to speak about whether she has converted to Islam.
The couple’s willingness to talk so early after their harrowing ordeal is part of what makes this story unique, along with the fact that Boyle was once married to Zaynab Khadr, the sister of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr. Canadian Colin Rutherford, who was released in January 2016 after five years in captivity, has still not spoken publicly about his captivity. Amanda Lindhout, who spent 460 days held hostage in Somalia before her release in 2009, would eventually write a bestselling book and give talks about her survival. But she was hospitalized and underwent intense therapy — which she continues today — for many years before speaking openly.
But Coleman said she hoped by speaking out she could help temper the politicking that is shaping the narrative of their kidnapping and rescue.
Pakistan’s army issued a statement hours after the young family was freed and safe in Islamabad that claimed they were alerted by U.S. agencies that the kidnappers were crossing from Afghanistan, at the Kurram Agency border, into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in northwestern Pakistan.
The next day, U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the rescue as “a positive moment for our country’s relationship with Pakistan.”
“The Pakistani government’s co-operation is a sign that it is honouring America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region,” he said in a statement.
For some, the rescue was hailed as deft diplomacy and a direct line drawn from Trump’s hardline stance with Pakistan this summer, when he threatened that Islamabad had “much to lose” if it failed to co-operate on security issues in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Coleman said they were moved quickly from Afghanistan to Pakistan after being kidnapped and the first six or seven months were among the most difficult.
“They first took us out of Afghanistan; it was several days’ drive. They took us to Miran Shah, in Pakistan, where we were kept for more than a year,” she said, adding that Boyle understood some Farsi, which helped them understand at times where they were. “It was very bad. My husband and I were separated at that time. He wasn’t allowed to see Najaeshi or spend any time with us.”
They named their oldest son Najaeshi Jonah.
“Then we were moved to the north of Miran Shah, to the house of a man who said he was called Mahmoud. He was very nice to Najaeshi and would provide us with amenities we wouldn’t have otherwise,” she said. “He would take Najaeshi out to get him sunlight and nobody else did that at any other point.”
In 2014 and 2015, the family was moved often. It was during this time, Coleman says, she had the forced abortion and was raped. “We had a pen they didn’t know about and we were taking little scraps of paper and trying to hand out notes to anyone and everyone that wasn’t one of the guards or commanders involved in killing Martyr,” she said. “But then they took us, separated us, and beat us and that was when the assault on me happened because they wanted us to stop.”
From there, she says, they were moved to Spin Ghar, just over the border in Afghanistan, southeast of Kabul. They were often drugged for the transport and put in the trunk of a vehicle.
“They were always saying you’ll go free in one week or two weeks and this was one of the times they said, ‘We’re going to this new place and one day, two day, maybe a week, you go free, you’re released.’ ”
They gave the houses nicknames, so the Spin Ghar home became “House of One Day.” They were there for months.
“Then they built a custom-built house for us. It was still close, in Spin Ghar. It was not good, not bad. It had problems, but no big problems … After that, we just stayed in a house for a short time, a day or two, because they were clearly running from something. One of them we called Dar el Fake Osama because one of their small commanders came but he was yelling that he was Osama bin Laden and we had to do everything he said,” Coleman said, shaking her head. “It was so bizarre.”
In a place they called the Cat Hotel, as they believed it was a hotel, they could see the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was there that Coleman says the kidnappers acquired a “jingle truck,” one of the brightly painted trucks adorned with bells that are ubiquitous on Pakistan’s roads. They were taken back into Pakistan in an area between Kohat and Bannu, she said.
They spent their final months there in what they called “Dar el Musa” (House of Musa). “Outside every day they were doing some training, or something was going on, and some guy was shouting and we laughed because whoever Musa was, he was not doing a good job,” she said. “He was always yelling, ‘No, no, no, Musa Musa.’ ”
She said they were held mainly in that house from about November 2016 until just two days before the rescue, when they were transferred to “the Mud House,” where the windows were covered with wet, packed dirt.
On Oct. 11, Coleman said, she was put in the trunk of the kidnappers’ car, after which some sort of car chase and gun battle broke out before they were freed.
“Our first fear — why we were not poking our heads up and yelling for help — was our fear that it was another gang trying to kidnap us. Possibly just part of the Haqqani network fighting with another part. They’re all just bandits,” she said.
“You’re a prisoner for so long, you’re so suspicious, I was still thinking we don’t know these people, we don’t know where they’re taking us.”
When she finally realized they were Pakistani forces and she was free, she doesn’t remember breaking down, or exactly how she reacted.
“I think I was mostly just in shock.”